DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan (AP) — Tribal elders are refusing to return to a former Taliban and al-Qaida stronghold bordering Afghanistan despite army claims the region is safe, jeopardizing hopes to bring back the 290,000 people who fled last year's military offensive.
Getting the people of South Waziristan to return is key to preventing militants from regrouping and using the northwestern region to threaten Pakistan and the West.
The elders' reluctance stems from a perception that the tribally ruled area remains dangerous. They also are resisting demands they form a militia on their return to fight any remaining Taliban in the region, which would make them a target of insurgent attacks.
"There is no peace," said Hakim Khan, an elder from the region's powerful Mehsud tribe staying in Dera Ismail Khan, a major town not far from the tribal zone. "Why does the government want to send us back?"
After months of prodding by the United States, the army launched a ground offensive in South Waziristan in October to retake it from the Pakistani Taliban, an al-Qaida-allied group whose leaders and rank and file include many Mehsud tribesmen.
The United States has praised the offensive, saying it is critical to keep the tribal areas from being safe havens for militants attacking Western troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani state. But many insurgents, including top commanders, are believed to have fled to other parts of the tribal belt, including neighboring North Waziristan.
Tribal elders are the main source of governance in South Waziristan and several neighboring regions in northwestern Pakistan. The Taliban and al-Qaida rose in power in parts of the tribal belt after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, either by killing the elders, paying them off or appealing to their sense of Muslim solidarity.
Over the last four months, South Waziristan political agent Shahab Ali Shah has met several times with tribal councils, consisting of dozens, sometimes more than 100 elders, and handed over a list of 372 militants the government wants the Mehsuds to turn in.
Authorities also have urged the Mehsuds to set up their own lashkar, or militia, to battle the militants.
But, after sitting in circles to hear the political agent's proposals, then breaking up to consult by themselves in smaller groups, the elders have responded negatively.
Mehsud elders say they have been away too long from South Waziristan to know where the suspects are.
And some are not convinced the military is wholly on their side, noting that many Pakistani Taliban leaders have fled to neighboring North Waziristan, where the army has yet to pressure them.
The elders also demanded that the federal government relax long-standing regulations that hold entire tribes responsible for any crimes on their land. They fear this means they will be targeted by authorities if militants stage attacks after they return.
"The Mehsud tribe is not in a position to take territorial and collective responsibility of the area in the presence of the army and the Taliban," elder Boghi Shah Mahsud said.
A government official involved in the efforts to get the elders to return said despite best efforts, "We were not able to remove the terror of the Taliban from their hearts and minds." He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The army says it killed more than 600 suspected militants in the South Waziristan offensive and lost 93 soldiers. Troops still clash with militants in the countryside and forests, but control about 80 percent of the Mehsud territory that was once fully in Taliban hands, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said.
The United Nations estimates 290,000 people are still displaced due to the South Waziristan offensive, part of more than 1 million Pakistanis forced to flee their homes as a result of fighting between the army and militants in the northwest. Most of those from South Waziristan are staying with relatives or in rented homes outside the tribal belt. None is known to have returned yet.
Rahimullah Yousafzai, a Pakistani journalist and expert on the northwest, said authorities want the elders' cooperation to "show that things are now stable, people can return (and that) security has been restored."
But he added: "The elders are caught between two extremes. If they go back, they are also taking on the Taliban. They are earning their enmity."
In an interview with The Associated Press last month, Pakistani Taliban commander Waliur Rehman played on those fears, warning the Mehsuds that the militant network planned to increase its attacks in the region come summer.
"The army has control only on the roads, and we are present in the forests," Rehman said. "If the Mehsud tribe returns to South Waziristan, then they will suffer from both sides."
Toosi reported from Islamabad.